Weimar Istanbul: A city on the verge of catastrophe

Weimar Cities are not freaks of nature. They may be expected to arise under certain social, political, and historical circumstances. World War I destroyed both Imperial Germany and the Ottoman Empire. The remnants of both entities succeeded in imposing alien new social orders on themselves, fragile experiments in democracy. The Turkish Republic has lasted far longer than the Weimar Republic, but the stories do not differ in the fundamentals; they have merely been telescoped or expanded by contingent events.

With the rise to power in 2002 of the Justice and Development Party, or AKP, the Turkish Republic has experienced a fresh convulsion. The AKP opened the Pandora’s box of political Islam. It has presented its reforms as an exercise in liberalization. In a sense, this is true: religion as a political force had, since the founding of the Republic, been repressed. In another sense, it is not true at all: this particular political force is one that, by its nature, tends ultimately to erase liberal reforms. “Democracy is like a streetcar,” Recep Tayyip Erdoǧan, now prime minister, said infamously in 1995. “When you come to your stop, you get off.”

Turkey is now in the throes of two revolutions. The social transformations over which Mustafa Kemal Atatürk presided have not yet been assimilated; simultaneously, something new—and old—has rushed up to challenge them. The ancient order is thus disappearing doubly. Cultures, it would seem, react in particular ways to the disappearance of ancient orders. The febrile characteristics of Weimar Cities appear at just such times—the in-between times. As fever is a sign of disease, so it is a sign of social dislocation.